Humans have long told stories about monsters. From the fantastic beasts of ancient mythology to the sometimes all too human monsters of modern cinema, lurid tales of death and violence have always entranced some facets of humanity. Why this is may always be a subject for debate, but in large part these stories allow us to play out very real fears in a safe manner, where the hero swoops in to save the day. Or, at the very least, we ourselves aren’t the ones being butchered.
Unfortunately, stories are not reality. The good guy does not always save the day, and the bad guy doesn’t always feel the sting of justice. Some murderous madmen ply their bloody trade and their identity is never discovered, passing into legend and becoming immortalized as a bogeyman of folklore. Some monsters are named, but manage to elude authorities just the same.
Such is the case of Bela Kiss (pronounced Kish). An amiable young bachelor, handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the darling of Cinkota, a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary in the early 1900s. A self taught tinsmith, young Bela Kiss did well for himself, and shared his good fortune with others. He married for a time, but his wife soon cheated on him with a young artist and the two eloped to America, or so Kiss said, leaving him Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be with him, married men in town envied him for the parade of beautiful women from Budapest who could be seen coming and going from his house. But Kiss, like many men of the time, was swept into the conflagration known as the Great War, his neighbors would learn a horrifying truth: Kiss was a killer of women, and a prolific one at that.
A ghastly discovery
The horrible truth about Bela Kiss was discovered two years after he marched to war in 1916. Kiss’ landlord, figuring that the reports of the tinsmith’s demise must have been true since it had been two years since anyone had seen or heard from him, decided to clean up the cottage and rent it out to a new occupant.
Starting with the obvious, the landlord began the cleanup operation with seven large metal barrels in the front yard. These barrels had been the subject of rumors for a long time. Neighbors whispered that Kiss was storing alcohol, while Kiss explained them away saying he was stockpiling gasoline for the coming war. The explanation seemed to satisfy everyone concerned, but despite that the landlord couldn’t help but be curious. He poked a small hole in one barrel, and was soon overwhelmed by the stench of death.
The landlord called the police, who descended on the scene and opened the barrels. Inside, they found the naked bodies of seven women, some with the killing ropes still around their neck, still others with puncture wounds in the neck that implied the killer had drained the bodies of blood. They had been pickled in wood alcohol.
A search of the grounds turned up more barrels and more bodies, for a grand total of 24 killed, including one male, later identified as Bikari, the young artist with whom Kiss’s wife had been unfaithful. Mrs. Kiss herself turned up in another barrel.
The ghastly discoveries continued. Police found evidence of how Kiss systematically lured in his victims. He placed adds in a Budapest newspaper, under the name Hoffman, advertising that he was a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” He kept the correspondence in a series of packets, giving police a portrait of a predator.
Kiss, who had been luring lonely women from Budapest since 1903, targeted women with large bank accounts and few friends. He talked them into emptying their bank accounts, promising wedded bliss. Some 175 women had responded to his ads. One, Katherine Varga, sold her dressmaking business and planned to move to Cinkota with her handsome suitor. She was later positively identified as one of Kiss’s victims. Other women brought lawsuits against Kiss when they realized he was manipulating them, but they disappeared before the proceedings could finish. They too were discovered among the pickled and strangled bodies.
An elusive killer
The last anyone had heard from Bela Kiss, he had been fighting among the Carpathian Mountains. He was presumed dead. Regardless, police contacted the military ordering the immediate arrest of Bela Kiss. The problem, of course, was that the name Bela Kiss was as common in early 20th century Hungary as John Smith is today. Add to that the chaos of war, and the fact that Hungary’s armies were in disarray, and it is no wonder that the search came up largely fruitless.
There were a few tantalizing leads in the case, however. A Bela Kiss was discovered in a Serbian hospital, either injured or dying of typhoid, but by the time police could arrive to detain him, the killer had lain a dead soldier in his bed and escaped.
Later, in 1920, a member of the French Foreign Legion contacted authorities about a suspicious Legionnaire, who he believed might be the infamous Monster of Cinkota. The suspect had bragged about his proficiency with a garrote, the method used in the Cinkota murders. However, the mysterious soldier disappeared before he could be detained.
In 1932, a New York detective by the name of Henry Oswald sighted a man he thought might be Bela Kiss walking out of the subway at Times Square. The suspect was soon lost in the crowd. Rumors still persisted that Kiss had taken up residence in the New York area, working as a janitor, but no one could be sure.
No doubt, Bela Kiss is long dead now. While the long arm of the law sometimes falls short, death never fails to get its man eventually. Still, there is no way of knowing how many women fell prey to Bela Kiss’s deadly appetites in the years after the horrific discoveries in Cinkota in 1916.
Bardsley, Marilyn and Noe, Denise. “The Crimes of Bela Kiss.” CrimeLibrary.com. Crime Library. February 7, 2015. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/bela_kiss/1.html
Bovsun, Mara. “Hungarian man murdered 24, pickled each corpse in barrels of alcohol in early 1900s.” NYDailyNews.com. February 9, 2014. Daily News. February 7, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/killer-murdered-24-pickled-corpses-barrels-article-1.1607445